Myanmar, Part 3: Hpa-an, the sky begins to burn

When last seen the Weazel was standing at sunset atop the refurbished ruins of the old Shwe Yin Myaw pagoda while gazing across the mighty Salween river at an isolated karst pinnacle. It was all very exotic and romantic.

Looking west from Hpa-An across the Salween

It was also rather peculiar, for improvements to the pagoda included a multi ton green concrete frog around which one can walk to achieve enlightenment.

Ribbet! Ribbet!

It was a popular gathering place for couples.

Don’t jump to any conclusions. Just because these fellows are wearing skirts and hugging doesn’t mean that this sacred place is the moral equivalent of the men’s room at the Washington monument. In Burma many traditional men wear skirts, also known as “sarongs”, and in sexually repressive societies men often hug each other when farm animals are not available. The frog, having achieved Nirvana, was oblivious to all this.

Meanwhile, commerce bustled below.

What? No cargo ship? Where’s my Walmart?

But, not to worry, there were watermelons aplenty!

Not made in China!

Despite the fact that Hpa-An is a Potemkin village run by a corrupt police state for propaganda purposes, it is nevertheless a reasonably nice, safe,  prosperous place. The Burmese people are friendly, but much quieter and more dignified than the Thais who often giggle for no good reason.

Many of the women were quite beautiful, tall, elegant, and refined. Too bad they wear mud for makeup, but it’s no worse than red lipstick on a bleached blond. I decided that I liked the place!

No wonder they have good posture!

Dinner consisted of crispy frogs with mugs of wretched draft beer. Damn the English for having introduced lukewarm Guinness style stout to Burma!

Thereafter, I wandered the streets until 9pm, at which time the sidewalks rolled up and the police patrols were replaced by packs of barking dogs that could sniff out a foreigner from blocks away. This olfactory information was duly reported back to the police. In Myanmar even the dogs work for the cops!

Bowser the prison Bitch keeps an eye on the foreign devils

As previously mentioned in Myanmar, Part 1: Do-Gooders, I’ll Cut You Like Glass! , the town was flooded with would be do-gooders, Hippies, and assorted Euro-trash, all there to enjoy some third world culture porn. That meant that Dr. Ann and I had to move out of the overcrowded Soe Brothers Guest House so a fresh batch could move in.

Our visa applications required that we have hotel reservations for several days after arrival, so we had no choice but to check into the swank Glory hotel, a government sanctioned highrise in the suburbs which overlooks an artificial lake. I hated the place, but at least the toilets worked. At $35/night it was the single most expensive luxury splurge of our entire two month trip to southeast Asia. We stayed for two days.

The staff, all spies, bothered us constantly. They checked on us for no reason (to help of course!), took careful note of our comings and goings, and even snuck into our rooms to investigate our possessions. Needless to say that meant I had to forgo my usual self medication. Other than cleanliness,  hot water, and not having to stand in line for a toilet, the best thing about the Glory Hotel was the view of Mt. Zwegabin from the 8th story penthouse restaurant. Look carefully and you can see a tiny pagoda on top of the 2400′ peak. Also note the ominous red sky.

Mt. Zwegabin as seen from the Glory Hotel, courtesy TrekEarth.com

In the afternoon I walked the back alleys of quaint little Hpa-An, then back down to the Shwe Yin Myaw pagoda.

At a nearby landing ferry boats waited for passengers who wanted to cross the river, or to visit Hpar-Pu mountain, the nipple topped karst peak so prominently visible across the river.

The big boat is a cargo ship, the little boats are ferry boats.

I debarked at Pabu, a friendly little Burmese village.

My ferry across the Salween

The people of Pabu appeared to be poor but happy.

The village of Pabu

Americans have a great deal of difficulty imagining how anyone could possibly be poor but happy. In Pabu they have everything except money and the right to vote. (Actually they can vote but their votes don’t count, like in Florida.) There is electricity, a paved main street, schools, shops, the kids have toys and ride bikes, crime is apparently non existent, women are unafraid to walk the streets, and everyone looks well fed.

Pabu is rather like the fictional town of Mayfield where Beaver Cleaver grew up.  Many contemporary Americans prefer to believe that such earlier times of peace and prosperity were just a myth, or even if real, that such an idyllic lifestyle must have been based upon repression.

How many times have I heard some fool say, “I rode a bike everywhere when I was a kid, but it was different then. Now it is too dangerous, so I never allow my child outside unattended”?

Such sentiments are pure bullshit. As Pinker has so clearly shown, the America of today is far safer than the America of the 50s. The main thing that has changed is not the crime rate, which has gone down, but rather the fact that easy living, access to too much useless information, and pseudo “empowerment” have caused us to become sniveling cowards who demand imaginary “rights” that we do not deserve.

In Pabu no one has any rights, and no one participates in politics. Keep the peace or you will be beaten. If you commit a serious crime, mention jihad, or foment rebellion you will disappear never to return. Of course it is a repressive system, but people accept it because they have low expectations and a sense of community. As Buddhists they understand that strife is not the answer, even to the challenges posed by a military dictatorship.

We, on the other hand, have high expectations and no sense of community. As a result, places like Pabu will continue their modest but tolerable existence long after the “American dream” has crumbled to dust.

From Pabu a path led along the river to the base of Hpar-Pu mountain. From there a steep trail followed the ridge upwards. Everywhere I looked there were crumbling Buddhist ruins, mostly meditation chambers for monks. The trail even passed through caves.

A small cave with Buddhist relics on Hpar-Pu mountain

Near one of the meditation chambers I was interested to find a flattened  Trimeresurus albolabris viper. Apparently the monks, who are sworn to respect all life, make certain exceptions.

Trimeresurus albolabris, courtesy Kevin Caldwell

I prefer to call these little arboreal beauties “Nose biters”, but during the Vietnam war they were referred to as “Two steppers” (or three, or five, or whatever) in the erroneous belief that if you were bitten you would fall over dead two steps later. In reality they are not that deadly. I used to have one for a pet that bit my roommate’s cat which subsequently exploded. Somehow the cat miraculously lived!

The path mostly consisted of very steep steps. By the side of the path I was amazed to see heavy loads of bricks and mortar ready to be carried up the mountain in wicker baskets. It was so steep that it was difficult to walk up the mountain while carrying anything, so how could skinny monks do it with 100 lbs on their backs while wearing sandals? Yet somehow they did. As with the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, faithful Buddhist peasants labor for generation after generation to build temples atop mountains, yet the end is never in sight.

Along the way I was joined by a friendly young French couple. As you can see, this fine fellow was much less afraid of heights than I!

It seemed that we would soon reach the temple atop the peak, but we were wrong.

The summit of Hpar-pu, so near yet so far!

After ascending another fifty feet or so we were stopped by an abyss. A scary traverse led to rotting bamboo ladders hanging from a vertical cliff at least a hundred feet tall. It appeared to be a suicidal climb, yet the monks did it every day with loads of bricks! Even my fearless French friend turned back.

Though the sun was getting low we took a moment to admire the grand panorama afforded by such a perch.

Hpa-An as seen from Hpar-pu mountain. That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.

Look at the horrible air quality! Where are we, Los Angeles? It is true that the above photo was taken near sunset, but the reddish color that pervades this and so many of my other photos of Thailand and Burma was due to the fact that all of southeast Asia is burning to a crisp. What you are seeing is smoke.

All this used to be lush jungle, but soon it will all be desert. Every year more trees are cut down, and every year the monsoon rains come later. When the rains finally come floods tear the ruined land apart and send the soil out to sea.

Like Donald Trump, the military dictatorship that runs Myanmar considers climate change to be a hoax. After all, there are no smoke belching factories anywhere nearby, no coal burning power plants, not even any cars!

Is it possible that the end of the world as we know it is being brought about by simple peasants clearing their fields as they have done for millennia? These are oppressed people who live close to nature, so they must be innocent, right? Wrong! Our beautiful green earth is being destroyed by the everyday affairs of ordinary people, and everyone is at fault, not just corrupt generals and capitalist pigs.

The red skies we saw from this mountain top in the middle of nowhere were just a harbinger of much worse things to come.

But don’t despair Kiddies, in our next post there will be golden temples galore, and we will travel down the Salween to the fabled city of Mawlamyine (formerly Moulmein), and there commune with the ghost of George Orwell!